Walking near her Harlem home in New York City, wearing her white pant-suit, pearl earrings and white hat, Freddie Mae Baxter embodies the quiet dignity you might expect from a 75-year-old woman. But when a stray melody from an open door floats her way, Baxter kicks up her sensible heels, cries, “I have to dance!” and launches into a spontaneous free-form boogie. “I don’t care if a truck runs me over,” she says delightedly. “I tell you, I’m a bold old lady!”
For most of Baxter’s life, her friends and family were the only ones to appreciate her rollicking joie de vivre. But thanks to her charming memoir, The Seventh Child: A Lucky Life, a larger audience is now privy to her uplifting story of tough breaks, hard work and a generous heart. “I just figure that loving people is my top priority,” Baxter says.
In fact, her homespun tale has already earned a 125,000-copy print run—a huge number for an unknown author—and eager coverage in TIME, The New York Times and an array of other media. “Baxter’s plainspoken narrative crackles with energy,” notes Publishers Weekly. Says Robin Desser, who edited the book: “Freddie Mae has the sort of storyteller’s voice a fiction writer would kill for.”
The life, too, reads like fiction. The seventh of eight children born to Henry, a farmer who abandoned his family in 1933, and Julia, a domestic worker who died in 1940, Baxter grew up in a five-room shack in rural Denmark, S.C. Living without electricity or hot water, she took sustenance from her mother’s courage and love. “She kept us all there without a father and with a little piece of bread here and there,” she says. “That’s where I got lucky in life.”
Baxter dropped out of school after the eighth grade and followed her younger brother Julius north. She took a job as a housekeeper for a family in Elizabeth, N.J., not far west of New York City. She neither married nor had children; a longtime boyfriend, to whom she refers simply as James, died of a heart attack when she was about 40. But Baxter says the many years she spent working as a nanny for 18 children were amply fulfilling. “How could I miss having kids when I had everybody’s else’s?” she asks. It wasn’t all work though. Baxter—who once played saxophone in an all-woman band—has fond memories of jitter-bugging to Duke Ellington and hearing Billie Holiday at the Apollo Theater in the ’40s. “I once told [Billie] I loved her,” Baxter recalls, “and she just smiled.”
Baxter’s literary career began almost by chance. Riding a train in 1996, she struck up a conversation with writer Gloria Bley Miller, a friend of a friend, who was enchanted by Baxter’s stories. Soon Miller, 77, was recording their weekly chats and editing them into a manuscript. The book landed in the hands of editors at Knopf, who offered the pair a six-figure advance.
Although the travails of her life might have embittered less resilient souls, Baxter, who has no plans to move from her modest studio apartment in Harlem, retains her sunny outlook. “People need to do some-forgiving,” she says. “You need to forgive—not forget. Just go ahead and live life today.” And as far as Baxter is concerned, it’s a perfect day to boogie.
Peter Ames Carlin
Joanne Fowler in New York City